Lessons from Mexico

Published : Nov 07, 2008 00:00 IST

President Felipe Calderons tough measures in the fight against drug cartels and crime have yielded substantial dividends.

WHILE terrorism remains a major concern in our part of the globe, it is an entirely different kind of violence one generated by the underworld specialising in the sale and transport of drugs that stalks life in many Central and South A merican countries. The mind-boggling sums of money that gangs make by peddling substances such as heroin, cocaine and so on and the strong international links they forge in the process make for an absorbing study. Stories woven around the violence spawned by these gangs may sound depressing but are fascinating for the interesting characters they throw up from time to time.

While Columbia is still the major producer of drugs, it is Mexico as the transit point that now hogs the news headlines. Not a day passes without a serious drug-related incident in that populous country, with the principal actors being the scores of cartels that operate undaunted by whatever the government does to break their backs. They are prosperous as well as deadly for the kind of fear they can spread among those who dare to challenge them.

It is widely known that these cartels cater mostly to American consumers although, according to one report, the growing middle class in Mexico has shown signs lately of falling prey to drugs. The Mexican cartels have free access to weapons coming from the U.S., which they employ with great felicity to intimidate other gangs and police officials. It is the definite assistance from across the border that provides the rationale for the Mexican governments strident demand that the U.S. involve itself with greater dedication to the task of annihilating the drug cartels.

A part of the worldwide anti-drug strategy is to reduce the demand somehow and render production and smuggling unattractive. This has proved to be Utopian in the context of the never-ending demand for drugs in the U.S. There is no evidence that the scene will change in the near future in spite of all that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has done for years.

As things stand, law enforcement agencies both in Latin America and in North America have been found inadequate for the task. Besides, it is widely known that they have succumbed to big money thrown at them by the Columbian and Mexican cartels.

There are strong parallels here to what we see in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is said to have managed to bring more land under poppy contrary to the governments claims and enormously enriched itself in the process. There is also credible talk of a police nexus with those who deal in drugs. Allegations of complicity have unfortunately touched even quarters close to President Hamid Karzai. Such is the pervasive nature of corruption the drug trade can bring all around us.

Hence, there are grounds for the Mexican government to be concerned about administrative incompetence and corruption as evidenced by the growing escalation of drug trade-related disorder and violence.

A recent visit to Mexico to the southern industrial town of Guadalajara, an hour by air from Dallas, and to the capital Mexico City, again an hour from there was an education in itself. Unsought, I came by a lot of information from the media and the ordinary citizen on the crime wave that is sweeping parts of the country, one that has brought a bad name to a land whose people are friendly and admiring of India.

On the face of it, neither city that I visited gave any impression of being a disturbed area. I was particularly impressed by what I saw in Mexico City, a teeming metropolis inhabited by more than 20 million people. The place pulsates with life, and there is a verve that could easily remind us of our four metros. The pleasant weather most of the year could be comforting to those used to the sweltering heat of Chennai or Delhi. Traffic on the road is heavy but seldom chaotic.

It is a pity that these positive features of day-to-day Mexican life are diluted somewhat by a growing fear of crime. According to some persons, there is an undoubted hype by the press, which allegedly does not do justice to a country that is upbeat about its future and has all the potential and determination to march forward to measurable economic prosperity. What one hears from top security officials, however, does not square with that optimism. Many of them told me that the situation was indeed serious and unless the government launched a major offensive against drugs and crime, Mexico could soon become a war zone like Iraq or Afghanistan.

This pessimistic account takes credence from a series of incidents reported in the past few months from Mexico City and cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez (which some refer to as the most violent of the lot) on the border with Texas. More than 2,700 people have died this year in the drug war. There is, no doubt, conventional violent crime such as homicide and kidnapping. Independent of it is the problem of turf war between gangs and attacks on law enforcement. What complicates the cocktail is the genuine tales of police corruption.

When I was in the country, Mexican papers were full of the murder of 14-year-old Fernando Marti, the son of a wealthy owner of a national sports goods dealership chain. He was kidnapped in June from his car in a busy locality of Mexico City. A huge ransom was demanded from his parents, who chose not to alert either the police or the press. Instead, they operated through a private mediator and paid a ransom of 6 million pesos. For several weeks they were hoping that the boy would be released. On the contrary, much to their horror, in early August, they found Martis body in the trunk of a stolen car abandoned in the seediest part of the city.

Investigations pointed to the complicity of a serving Federal Police official, who has since been arrested along with five others, including a former Mexico City police detective.

The incident not only revealed the vindictiveness of the group involved but also confirmed that the police had become tainted beyond belief. This is why whoever I spoke to including Moyes, a young Mexican boy travelling with me to New York on an Aero Mexico flight was contemptuous of the police and categorical that even in a crisis they would not approach the police. This explains the Marti clans decision not to approach the police.

There is, however, a silver lining to the cloud in the form of the genuine determination of President Felipe Calderon, who assumed office in December 2006. His predecessor, Vincente Fox, did also make his presence felt. Exercised over the undiminished might of the drug cartels, he took many decisions, including the setting up of a special force to combat organised crime and arresting many high-ranking mobsters. His major failure, however, was in not being able to demolish the most notorious Sinaloa cartel operating on the eastern Texas border.

President Felipe Calderon has shown himself as more proactive and determined. During the less than two years he has been in office, his commendable courage and realism in trying to stem a dangerous situation has yielded substantial dividends. Disgusted with the inefficiency of the police force and the heavy infiltration of drug cartels into its ranks, he has relied heavily on the Army to launch decisive field operations that have resulted in the liquidation or arrest of many cartel leaders.

In January 2007, he took the extraordinary step of extraditing four major drug-dealers to the U.S., a step that previous administrations avoided out of the fear of a backlash. In the face of such stern measures, there are signs of desperation among the cartels, which possibly accounts for the many recent reckless attacks on the civilian population and law enforcement personnel. Two daring incidents of the past few weeks highlight the nature of the challenge to President Felipe Calderon. In one, a grenade was thrown at a crowd on Independence Day (September 15) at Morelia in Felipes home State of Michoacan, killing eight people. In the other incident, which happened in early October, the Mayor of a resort town close to Mexico City was killed by a hooded gang armed with semi-automatic rifles, all because he would not allow his jurisdiction to become a sanctuary for drug cartels.

What is encouraging is that President Felipe Calderon has been able to secure the assistance of the U.S. government in a variety of ways. The most important of the recent developments is what is known as the Merida Initiative, which will provide a U.S. grant of $400 million every year to Mexico for buying, among other things, technical aids to detect drug consignments passing through the country. The money will also be used for law enforcement training.

Simultaneously, the President has drafted a piece of legislation that aims at major police reforms in the hope that the country will have a better recruited and better trained and motivated corps of policemen. There is also a report that the administration is thinking in terms of decriminalising some drug offences, such as possession of small quantities of heroin and marijuana, a move that is not favoured by many, including a few in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. A similar move some years ago by Vincente Fox was withdrawn in the face of U.S. opposition.

What is most striking about the current administration is its willingness to experiment and its unwillingness to flinch from the many formidable challenges it faces. It is also not averse to consulting experts in the area globally and learning from their successes and failures. This is a refreshing outlook to acute problems of governance, something that offers hopes of greater order in the Mexican society not long from now.

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